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Germany flood cripples tourism

Cornelia Ganitta
August 6, 2021

Known for their beautiful landscape, vineyards and wine festivals, villages in the country's western Eifel region are still reeling from the recent flooding.

Eifel | Flooding |A split photo of a building before and after the flooding
From one day to the next the flooding changed everything in the Eifel regionImage: Cornelia Ganitta/DW

The Ahr Valley inthe Eifel region has always been aware of how best to market itself — like this text from a tourism brochure: "The idyllic wine villages along the Ahr are strung together like pearls on a precious necklace. The Ahr meanders dreamily in narrow bends through a bizarre rocky landscape ... a Mediterranean climate provides the grapes in the Ahr Valley — Germany's northernmost contiguous red wine-growing region — with optimal conditions."

This region and its small villages became a stronghold of wine tourism in the 1960s and 1970s, especially during the wine festivals which saw the wine queen crowned, when tourists came here on specially organized trains.

Later, many excursionists from Cologne and Bonn came to hike the Red Wine Route from Altenahr to Bad Bodendorf above the romantically situated Ahr River.  Afterwards, the hikers enjoyed a glass of wine around the villages of Dernau and Mayschoss.

Since the great flood of July 14, when the Ahr turned into a raging river, the romantic atmosphere of the wine region came to an abrupt end — at least for the time being. 

Flood damage in a small village in the Eifel
The wine-growing village of Mayschoss destroyed by the floodsImage: Cornelia Ganitta/DW

A sight of devastation

A good three weeks later, Mayschoss still looks like a bomb hit it — even though a lot has already been cleaned up. Some even speak of a "zero hour." Destroyed houses, a musty smell in the air, dust and garbage in the streets. Some of the 950 inhabitants of the community are thinking of giving up. This is also the case for the Siedentopps, a retired couple. Their family vacation home, which had just been refurbished as part of the village renewal program, is completely ruined.

 "At first, the house was not accessible because of the 20 cm of oil sludge on the paths and the blocked doors," says Claudia Siedentopp. "When we got inside, we were presented with a picture of devastation. Everything had been flung all over the house." It has since been cleared out.

The oil tanks in the basement are exposed. The kitchen floor that covered them is gone. Only some boards laid down allow people to balance over them. The beams of the listed historic house with its neat half-timbered facade are starting to mold.

The Siedentopps do not yet know whether they should continue. Like most people in the village, they too were not insured against flood damage

Interior of a flood-damaged house in the Eifel, Germany
This place used to be a sauna and shower in the home of the Siedentopp familyImage: Cornelia Ganitta/DW

Internet helps to boost sales

Those who stay do everything they can to keep their spirits up by working. "You can't get bogged down. As long as you don't think about it, you're fine," says Alina Sonntag, head of marketing at the world's oldest winegrowers' cooperative (WG), which is more than 150 years old.

Some 460 members from Mayschoss, Altenahr and Walporzheim are united under its roof. Of these, half are winemakers who cultivate a total of 150 hectares of vineyards. "We are now focusing on the grape harvest," says Sonntag. "At the moment, it's actually the most labor-intensive time of the year because of plant protection and foliage work."

Germany - Flood helpers sift through the debris in the Eifel
Volunteers salvage the still-intact wine bottlesImage: Cornelia Ganitta/DW

Vintners from the Palatinate and Moselle have come to help with manpower and equipment. Meanwhile, in front of the WG building, two dozen volunteers have formed a chain to salvage the intact bottles from storage. Outside, they are to be rinsed off and then sold. "Many customers don't mind if the labels are damaged," says the woman who was once declared a wine queen at a wine festival. "They want to support us by buying the wine. Internet distribution is now the only sales opportunity in the long term."

Demolition or reconstruction

The bar, the wine museum, the fairground where the wine festivals were held in the fall, the four hotels and 10 restaurants — except for two — have been destroyed. There is not even a baker or a butcher left.

Instead, it is currently crowded with strangers who are helping out. Among them are the THW (German Federal Agency for Technical Relief), the Bundeswehr (German Armed Forces), the police, tradespeople trying to get the water and electricity running, and structural engineers and experts marking with green crosses those houses that have to be demolished.

Germany, people sitting under a tent in the Eifel
A place where people can talk ̶  the "grapevine" in front of the old schoolImage: Cornelia Ganitta/DW

The question that is currently on everyone's mind is: Will they be allowed to rebuild demolished houses at all? And if so, under what conditions? Concern is also spreading among the residents that in a few months they will be left alone with their problems. Many of them meet in the old school. Here they can talk, exchange ideas, comfort each other.

The old school is also where the crisis team, headed by Gerd Baltes, meets. As a retired police officer who served in Albania and Afghanistan, he has seen many things. But he did not ever anticipate a flood like this. "At 2.20 meters, the fire department is officially alerted. Here they were already active before that point was reached. It all started quite harmlessly with a heavy downpour," says Baltes.

During the 2016 flood, the Ahr had already risen 3.71 meters above its banks, the man from Mayschoss recounts, "but this year it was 8.06 meters. After the night of the flood, 70 people had to be taken off the roof on the Thursday." Those who have lost all their belongings are being partly accommodated in the vacation homes in the village or in other housing in the surrounding area.

Due to the fact that three bridges are broken and roads were destroyed by the flood, only a temporary tarred road leads from a hill through the forest to the village, which is entirely supplied from the outside. "It will certainly take a few years to restore the infrastructure to anything like what it used to be," predicts the crisis manager, adding, "Of course, state funding is also absolutely necessary for this."

Hiking instead of timber-framed house idyll

Another town, another construction site. The small town of Kall in the district of Euskirchen, 60 kilometers to the west, was also hit by the storm. Train services have been suspended, and the new station forecourt, inaugurated just a few weeks ago, has been completely devastated.

Pavement slabs have been piled up, the freshly planted young trees are lying on their sides. All the stores in Bahnhofsstraße have been flooded; they have already been cleared out and are empty, like the ice cream parlor that only opened this spring. Garbage piles up everywhere along the streets in the small town not far from the national park.

Germany, the flood destroyed forecourt of the train station in Kall, Eifel
The destroyed forecourt of the train station in KallImage: Cornelia Ganitta/DW

Kall is home to the Nordeifel Tourismus-GmbH, which markets this jewel with its 240 kilometers of hiking trails, among other things. Tourism in the northern Eifel normally generates annual sales of just under €390 million. But if there were already lower numbers of guests last year due to the coronavirus pandemic, there are likely to be even fewer this year. "On the one hand, we are concerned about infection numbers rising again," says Managing Director Iris Poth. "On the other hand, many guests currently associate the Eifel with a 'disaster area.'" 

Communities like Gemünd, Schleiden and Bad Münstereifel have been badly hit and it will be difficult to restore the flair, particularly of half-timbered towns with their far-reaching listed and protected buildings, which come with many requirements, says the tourism expert.

"But beyond the valley, where rivers and streams  overflowed, there are still the high locations that ensure reliable tourism with their hiking and biking trails." For example, the former Nazi estate Ordensburg Vogelsang, which today is part of the national park, is picturesquely located on the Eifelsteig hiking trail and high above the Urft River.

Germany | View over cow pastures to hills and a lake in the Eifel region
Hiking is possible ̶  especially at higher altitudes, like here on the Eifelsteig trail near EinruhrImage: picture-alliance/DUMONT Bildarchiv/R. Kiedrowski

Getting there is a real challenge

"What we're waiting for is a recovery plan. Subsidies from the federal government or the state, so that we have something with which we can help the businesses at all," says Poth. Emergency aid of €5,000 for business people is currently easy and unbureaucratic to obtain through the municipalities, he says. "However, these are only to cover the most essential clean-up work," says Poth.

The greatest obstacle for the region at the moment is getting there. Road closures on the A1 and A61 motorways near Erftstadt are hindering access. And the train, which crosses the Eifel on its way from Cologne to Trier, can currently only be served by replacement buses. Eighty stations and 600 kilometers of track were damaged by the storm, according to Deutsche Bahn. It will take years to restore this infrastructure as well.

On the webpage of the winegrowers' cooperative Mayschoss-Altenahr, in return for a donation to the flood relief, you can receive a limited "surprise package" including some wine bottles that were rescued from the flood debris.

This article was translated from German.